The number of unwanted dogs and cats is swelling animal shelters worldwide. Whether they're given up by their pet parent or picked up as strays, these pets are a challenge for any country to manage. Private rescue groups can help with foster care, but in many cases, these pets are euthanized. Since this is distressing for all involved, the question arises: how do we as a community reduce the number of homeless pets in shelters?
Some Australian municipalities are considering laws that would make neutering compulsory at point of sale. So, when you go and pick up your eight-week-old bundle of fluff from the breeder, they will already have been neutered. This may have an effect on the number of accidental pregnancies that result in a litter of puppies or kittens, in that busy people can lose track of time and overlook neutering their pet until it's too late. However, veterinary practitioners and some groups involved in animal rescue aren't in favor of such laws and their reasons are valid.
Puppies and kittens are usually rehomed when they are around eight weeks old. Many veterinarians feel that at this age they are too young for neutering. It's less of an issue for cats but more so for large, giant breeds of dogs. The timing of neutering for an individual pet should be determined after a discussion between veterinarian and pet parent, and take into account gender, breed, anticipated activity level, and lifestyle considerations.
The alternative is a voucher system, where a puppy or kitten goes to their new home with a prepaid voucher for neutering at an appropriate age. The cost of the neuter surgery is included in the purchase price of the pet. Some rescue groups already do this; it resolves the concerns associated with neutering young pets. However, it doesn't manage the risk of that accidental pregnancy because the pet came into season before it was expected and the neighborhood Romeo managed to get into their yard.
When it comes to cats, studies have shown that "community cats" were more likely to contribute to shelter numbers than an owned or feral cat. These cats don't have a specific home but are often fed by two or three households. Because they don't have one pet parent, they're usually not microchipped or neutered, and they're less likely to be looked for if they don't show up for breakfast one day. Cats with pet parents are usually microchipped and find their way home, or they're friendly, affectionate, and easily adopted. Feral cats tend to be secretive and aren't considered a heavy burden on shelter resources.
One of the biggest issues associated with laws that force compulsory neutering is the expense and infrastructure needed to police them. This would mean extra animal control staff to follow up on compliance issues and a huge increase in municipal expenses. There's no point in expecting people to comply with a law if there are no consequences for breaking it. In Australia, it has been law to microchip pups and kittens before they're sold and this law isn't being followed. So why would local governments expect a new law to be treated any differently, especially if it's difficult to monitor?
Neutering is very important in reducing the number of pets in shelters, but microchipping and registration are also essential. A multifaceted approach that includes these three things plus education will help reduce the numbers of pets finding their way into shelters and give any lost pet the best chance of being returned to their pet parent.